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Red River War - Sherman and the Kiowa Chiefs

Posted October 13th, 2012 at 04:25 PM by Baltis
Updated October 14th, 2012 at 09:04 AM by Baltis

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Lone Wolf


General Sherman came to West Texas in May of 1871 on a tour of the southwestern forts now under his overall command. One of his first acts on arrival at Fort Richardson was to meet with a citizens' committee from Jacksboro located in North Texas south of the Kiowa and Comanche reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Ever since the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, the tribes made regular sport of raiding south of the Red River in Texas. Experience and Grant's 'Peace Policy' showed them how to maximize their situation by wintering on the reservation while spending summers hunting buffalo on the Staked Plains of the Llano Estacado. Unfortunately, they also carried on a long standing tradition of raiding the Texas ranchers and stealing both animals and family members. The Jacksboro Citizens Committee told General Sherman many stories of "cruel wrong and murder" committed by the reservation Comanche and Kiowa. A number of tell-tale scalps found on the reservation served as grim evidence to support the accusations.


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Big Tree

One of the most compelling events took place the summer before near a small settlement called Henrietta. While leading a scout toward the Little Wichita, Captain McClellan "discovered a large body of Indians" under the Kiowa chief known as Kicking Bird. They greatly outnumbered his 50 man force and commenced an immediate attack. McClellan maintained his cool and dismounted the men. He organized a perimeter using the horses as cover and fought off the Indians. It took several hot hours of continuous action without water but the Kiowa eventually stopped the attack. Two men died on the spot and another 14 needed an ambulance in order to travel. A number of the men (including Captain McClellan) won medals for bravery but the small settlement was burned out and abandoned.

As luck would have it, before the Jacksboro Committee even left the post, Thomas Brazeale "hobbled into our post hospital with a horrible tale of massacre and atrocious butchery on Salt Creek Prairie." A group of ten freight wagons had just been attacked with terrible results. Sherman ordered Mackenzie on patrol to confirm the killings and then on to Fort Griffin. From there, he would consolidate his command and rejoin Sherman who planned a direct move to the reservation at Fort Sill. As the battle took place only 4 miles from Sherman's march of one day earlier, many people jumped to the conclusion the raiders had intended to kill or capture the general. The Kiowa denied having prior knowledge of Sherman's presence.

Mackenzie's column reached the massacre site and discovered a terrible scene. Indians chained Samuel Elliott on the axle between two wagon wheels. Once set up like a roasting spit, they slowly turned the man alive until 'burnt to a crisp'. Six other mutilated bodies lay strewn about the area. With arrows sticking out of their bodies and genitalia, fingers, and toes stuffed down their throats, the bloated remains looked something like porcupines. All were scalped but some of the bodies actually had their heads removed and brains scraped out. The abdomens were split open and intestines pulled out to be heaped with burning coals. Dead mules scattered throughout the area completed a very grisly sight. On a slightly brighter note, a total of five men hid in the timber and escaped death at the hands of the Kiowa. Even though heavy rains soaked made following the trail difficult, the Indians had clearly come from the direction of Fort Sill.

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Kiowa and Caddo prisoners in Florida 1875


Mackenzie sent word of the massacre on to Sherman at Fort Sill. The message arrived on June 4 to find General Sherman already there and deep into his investigation of the Salt Creek Prairie event. Determining the identity of the raiders proved relatively simple as one of the primary Kiowa chiefs, Satanta, bragged openly of leading the raid. He justified the murders by pointing out his repeated requests for arms and ammunition had been refused and also that his young men needed to learn how to fight. As a result, Satanta "took the chief Se-tank, Eagle Heart, Big Tree, Big bow, and Fast Bear. We found a mule train, and killed seven of the men. Three of our men got killed, but we are willing to call it even." The chief also indicated intent to continue his activities. "We don't expect to do any raiding around here (Ft. Sill) this summer; but we expect to raid in Texas."

Even with the open confession, Sherman needed permission from the Indian agent in order to charge the Indians with any crimes. Even though he was a Quaker and therefore sympathetic to the plight of the Kiowa, agent Lawrie Tatum requested murder charges against all the named chiefs. He specified the older man, Chief Setank, as the "worst Indian on the Fort Sill reservation." Sherman and Tatum worked out a plan for arranging seizure of the chiefs. They arranged a meeting with all the Kiowa leaders to take place at General Grierson's house at Fort Sill. In case of trouble, Sherman hid some of Mackenzie's men (6th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers) in the side rooms behind some blinds. The precaution proved wise indeed as the Kiowa arrived covered in blankets even though summer weather in western Oklahoma remained extremely warm.

The leaders of each side faced each other while an officer spoke Comanche through the post interpreter. Satanta and the chiefs "were charged with the murder of the teamsters on Salt Creek Prairie, and then of having come in and gleefully boasted of it." More evidence was produced while each side kept careful eye on every movement of the other. On completion, General Sherman "at once ordered all of them to be seized and taken to the post guard house-there to be placed in double irons. Then came the crisis-which all had been awaiting with almost breathless, tense anxiety. The Indians quickly threw back their blankets almost as one man--and as if they had rehearsed it--and started to use their weapons--and some to string their bows." At that moment, Sherman gave his signal and the blinds were thrown back revealing a company of Buffalo Soldiers "with every eye squinting down the barrels---and a death look and meaning in every face. This was too much even for the nerves of Satanta and Lone Wolf--two of the most celebrated and to be feared, bloodthirsty Indians along that entire border south of Kansas." Lone Wolf cried out and leaped over the porch railing. His move surprised the guards and Lone Wolf raced to freedom. Satanta, Setank, and Big Tree were not so lucky as the soldiers quickly overpowered them taking the chiefs prisoner.

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Satanta


Sherman left Fort Sill before Mackenzie arrived but left instructions the prisoners should be taken to Jacksboro for trial and execution in the criminal courts where the crime was committed. This required transporting the chiefs some 120 miles south to Fort Richardson in Jacks County, Texas. Mackenzie was to "take all due precautions" as the Kiowa "are now doubtless at their camps, on the Wichita, debating peace or war."

The heavily guarded wagon train prepared to leave Fort Sill on the morning of June 8. Chief Setank took the move badly and "would have killed himself had he not been grasped by Big Tree and restrained until he could be placed in the wagon." Once seated in a separate cabin, each chief found himself between armed guards and more riding alongside the wagons. Setank hung his head under a blanket and began "dolefully chanting a wild, weird death song" all the while concealing his continuous effort to remove enough skin from his hands to slip the irons.

After a few hours the train neared Cache Creek ford Setank considered himself ready. He let loose a "piercing yell, flung off his blanket and jumped to his feet; at the same time, drove at corporal with a big scalping knife which in some mysterious manner he had concealed in his legging--and stabbed him, although not seriously. The corporal dropped his carbine, flung himself over the side of the wagon by a very agile back somersault to the ground." Setank grabbed his gun and tried to fire at the trooper sitting across from him but the gun misfired. Another trooper in the next wagon fired right into Setank's chest. "It did not kill him. With an almost superhuman effort he rallied, recovered himself and sat up in the wagon, still working the lever of the carbine." The trooper fired a second shot into Setank's chest killing him instantly.

Earlier in the day, Setank spoke with one of the Caddo scouts. He predicted dying in route and said to leave his bones by the side of the road. He wanted his people to "gather them up and take them home." The column did leave him by the side of the road but not before a Tonkawa scout relieved the body of its scalp. Some soldiers later carried him back to Fort Sill for burial but the tribe declined to come and recover the body.

Almost 50 years after the incident, Robert Carter wrote an article describing the incident. He accidentally named Sergeant Varily as the one who shot and killed Setank. His article came to the attention of Corporal John Charlton who immediately wrote a letter correcting Carter. He had been the one who shot Setank and wanted to make the record clear on that point. In his later book, On the Border with Mackenzie, Carter happily corrected himself and printed Charlton's account of the killing. One wonders if Charlton were alive today if he would really want to be associated with the killing of an Indian chief.

After Setank's death, the caravan continued on to Jacksboro for the trial. In what was dubbed 'the Cowboy Verdict, the jury needed almost no evidence before declaring guilt and sentenced the prisoners to hang. Indian agent Tatum appealed the death sentence and got them commuted to life imprisonment at Huntsville.

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